Gender inequality and COVID-19: why ‘building back better’ can’t just mean a return to pre-pandemic ‘normal’

Woman with medical mask in crowded street

If policymakers are serious about recovery, their strategies should seek to fundamentally redress the significant gendered effects of the crisis, writes Clara Fischer. To date, however, policy responses have typically only highlighted further gender imbalances

Why women should be at the centre of recovery plans

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson opened the recent G7 summit in Cornwall with the message that the post-pandemic recovery requires ‘building back better’. Specifically, he said we should be ‘building back greener, building back fairer, building equally and – how should I put it? – in a more gender-neutral and perhaps a more feminine way’.

Perhaps the word the Prime Minister was looking for was not ‘gender-neutral’ (given the differential and often harmful impact of gender-blind policy-making during the pandemic and the previous 2008 crisis) but rather, ‘gender-sensitive’, ‘gender-equitable’, or the altogether more straightforward ‘feminist’. Indeed, women’s organisations have long been calling for approaches to the pandemic, its fallout, and now the looming recovery, that are centrally concerned with gender and thereby have the potential to redress the significant gendered effects of the crisis.

These effects have been widely reported, and have shone a light on several systemic flaws in how our societies and economies are structured, including issues around how work outside of the home relates to care work inside the home, and the implications this has for women and men. The linkages to the gendered nature of poverty and women’s economic insecurity have also been made in relation to women’s greater care burdens.

Moreover, the pandemic has highlighted the increased number of job losses experienced by women owing to their higher concentration in specific sectors (such as retail and hospitality), and women’s increased susceptibility to the virus, illness and burnout, given that the majority of frontline jobs are held by women.

Women on the frontlines and at home

Across Europe, more than 70% of healthcare staff are women, and women make up the majority of workers in the care sector more generally, including in elder care, childcare and cleaning. As several commentators have pointed out, it is only because of this ongoing work by women on the frontlines and at home that we are now in a position to consider recovery strategies.

Such strategies must fundamentally be informed by the gender inequalities that have so starkly emerged during the pandemic. Indeed, if ‘building back better’ means redressing such inequalities and focusing on gender and related, intersectional categories, then the phrase may hold some promise.

However, it is not clear whether current recovery plans are designed to engage the radically transformative potential of ‘building back better’ beyond restoring the pre-pandemic status quo. In fact, the policy response to the pandemic thus far has highlighted further gender imbalances – including in decision-making, with women inadequately represented on COVID-19 taskforces.

According to UN Women’s and UNDP’s COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker, set up to establish the gender-sensitivity of policy measures introduced during the pandemic, 1,299 of 3,100 measures have been identified as ‘gender-sensitive’, meaning they address gendered economic insecurity, support for unpaid care, or violence against women and girls. Furthermore, only 19% of the 187 countries tracked address all three areas of concern, with 15% having no gender-sensitive policy measures at all.

By and large, countries of the Global North have focused on measures to address violence against women and girls, with Latin America and the Caribbean, and to a lesser extent sub-Saharan Africa, prioritising women’s economic security. The majority of the policy measures identified address gendered violence; the tracker finds that of more than 1,700 social protection and labour market measures introduced in 219 countries, only 13% address women’s economic security, and only 11% support unpaid care.

Women feel they have been left behind

Given this paucity of policies addressing gender inequality beyond violence against women and girls, it is not surprising that women feel they have been left behind in discussions on how to ‘build back better’. Indeed, a recent survey points to widespread dissatisfaction among women in the UK: less than four in 10 women (38%) believe the UK Government is focusing on issues that matter most to them, while only three in 10 (29%) think women’s specific needs have been considered and responded to well.

In light of the highly gendered impacts of the pandemic, it stands to reason that we now require policy measures that specifically address women’s experiences and mitigate against gender inequality. Specifically, this must mean ‘building back better’ by going beyond the pre-pandemic status quo – which was, in and of itself, problematic.

The pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities, and amplified fissures in how we understand, organise and support work and care relations, among others. Before the pandemic, women the world over were already carrying out between two and 10 times more care and domestic work than men. The crisis, and government mandated lockdowns, merely amplified this care burden and other gender inequalities, exponentially.

If policymakers are serious about recoveries that ‘build back better’, then their strategies and policy measures must now fundamentally redress gender and related inequalities, to achieve a more equitable future that is a significant advance on the pre-pandemic ‘normal’.

Dr Clara Fischer is a Vice-Chancellor Illuminate Fellow in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast